Seen any sparrows lately?

Continuing the theme of birds and whether there are more or less of them this year, I thought I would bring your attention to a worrying report from the RSPB that is highlighting the plight of the common house sparrow. Numbers of house sparrows have declined in the UK by 68% in the last 30 years (i.e. they have more than halved in my lifetime).

The reasons for this are unknown, but it is thought to be related to a lack of food for the chicks resulting in lower numbers leaving the nest and a higher mortality rate in those that do fledge. Why the lack of food? The reason is thought to be our disappearing gardens, the reduction in house sparrow numbers being more pronounced in towns and cities than in rural areas. The increase in decking and patios, the removal of hedges, the addition of the dreaded leylandii and the obsession with short grass have all reduced the number of insects inhabiting our gardens. This, coupled with our chemical warfare on all things creepy-crawley, has reduced the food available to the sparrows.

But, I hear you cry, shouldn’t this affect other garden visitors such as blue tits and robins? I think that it has, but it is just that the sparrows used to be so populous that the reduction is more noticeable. Pairs of sparrows need to raise at least five young a year to keep the numbers up, this means having multiple broods and more mouths to feed.

The numbers of sparrows in our garden fluctuates throughout the year, but I know there were a couple of pairs about and that there were two successful broods. Will that be enough? I am not sure, I have only seen the occasional sparrow in recent weeks, but it may be that they are off somewhere else at the moment. (A few weeks ago we had about 8 goldfinches at a time in the garden, then none for weeks, but lots of greenfinches and chaffinches; I guess it depends on whether there are other food sources around.)

So, what can we do? I fed the birds mealworms for a couple of months this year (admittedly they were aimed at the blue and great tits and I was a little annoyed at the time by the gluttony of the sparrows) but this can be expensive if rewarding. The RSPB recommends leaving patches of grass unmown for insects to congregate in and planting certain shrubs, one of the best being honeysuckle which provides food for birds and bees for a lot of the year as well as having the advantage of being easy to grow.

To read more about the decline of the sparrows see the BBC news pages and the RSPB website.

I will certainly be monitoring the sparrows in my garden from now on, let me know how the sparrows in your area are faring.


There have been two separate stories on the internet and in the papers this week relating to the re-introduction of species to the British Isles.

The first relates to the re-introduction of beavers to Scotland, a story that first hit the headlines back in May. The four families of beavers, which will be released in May, have been flown into the UK from Norway. Although there still seems to be some opposition to the move, mainly from those employed by the fishing industry, it appears to me to be a good idea. From what I can tell, there has been a long period of consultation and much study of other beaver re-introduction schemes in Europe. The releases are on a small scale, and therefore should not have a wide-scale effect on the environment at large. Also, this is a creature that has many beneficial effects on the local ecosystem, and was once a native until we killed them all to make fetching hats. It is not comparable with, for example, the release of mink, a species that has never been native to this country and which has nothing but a detrimental effect on the local fauna and flora. If you want to read more about this visit the BBC website.

In a separate story this week it appears that there are plans to re-introduce White-Tailed Eagles (Sea Eagles) to England. Following a successful re-introduction to the west coast of Scotland thirty years ago, plans are being drawn up to re-introduce these magnificent birds to Norfolk. There are currently 42 pairs in the west of Scotland, and they are now attempting to re-introduce them to the east coast. This is a re-introduction that has not been entirely problem-free with too many cases of poisoning and trapping of the eagles, with farmers believing them to be taking lambs being the main suspects. This is despite the estimated £1.5 million per year revenue that the eagles are thought to bring to the Isle of Mull.

The White-Tailed Eagle was once native to England before being driven out approximately 200 years ago. Norfolk has been chosen as a potential release area as it is thought to provide sufficiently large areas of wetland. The work carried out on this project and the ones in Scotland are of importance worldwide as there are only 7000 pairs remaining. As with other such schemes there will no doubt be a long period of consultation prior to the start of the scheme, although the first survey of 500 local people appears to be promising, with 91% in favour of re-introducing the eagles. More about this story can be found on both the BBC and RSPB websites.

I think it must be Winter.

I have spent the last few weeks thinking about how, despite the wet Summer, this Autumn has been spectacularly colourful. The leaves on the Sycamores that I pass on the way to work have been a glowing yellow, but alas, they are no more. The wind of the last couple of days has taken away most of the leaves and left them on the ground, shadows of their former glory. The Purple Hazel and the Dogwoods in our garden, which last week seemed to laugh at the autumn, are now as naked as the Rowan and Silver Birches.

Around Daventry, apart from the evergreens, it seems as though it is only oaks that have kept their finery. Walking down the old railway track you can be fooled into thinking that the trees are still looking green, but it is the ivy, winding its way up so many trunks, that is giving the colour.

Oak Tree in Autumn

I went for two walks today, because I could, and because it wasn’t raining. This morning we walked into Daventry, and then back along the old railway track via the church yard. It was all peculiarly quiet. About this time last year we carried out the first Winter surveys for the BTO bird atlas, and the church yard was full of life (no pun intended). We struggled to count the blackbirds, they were so abundant, and, as for the old railway track, you could hardly hear yourself speak for their rustling and alarm calls. This morning there was hardly a peep (or cheep) out of them. We saw an occasional blackbird leaping about in the yew, looking for berries, but nothing else. But then, there were hardly any berries for them to leap for. Has it been a bad year for berries, was it the late frost and Easter snow, or are these shrubs and trees also suffering from the same lack of insects as most gardens this year?

Anyway, to look for more birds (and, I admit, in a half-hearted attempt to find the Red-crested Pochard again) I went to the Country Park. To sum up, it was cold. I only had binoculars (photography being my primary reason for the outing) so am not sure whether there were many birds out in the water. I am pretty sure there were no Red-crested Pochards though. What I did see, which surprised me as I have never seen them in November before, was a flotilla of Goosander. These are my bellwethers, the Harbingers of Winter. I may still be missing the redwings, but I need no other signs to tell me that it is time to get the thermals out.

Daventry Country Park in Winter

Unexpected finds at the Country Park.

A lull in the damp weather that has marked (or maybe that should be marred) recent weekends sent us out for a quick walk.  Not being sure how far we were going to go due to a bad back and the gathering grey clouds of doom and rain I was armed only with a small pair of binoculars and my small camera.

Destination – Country Park.  We came in through the back entrance, across the meadow and immediately spotted a Jay.  As my other half has an aversion to these birds since one threw a branch of an oak tree at his head, we headed in the opposite, and less muddy direction.  I immediately spotted a green woodpecker which flew across the path in the distance and perched on the fence.  As we got closer it helpfully flew back across the path flashing its bright green rump and flying with that unmistakeably woodpecker undulation.  A good start to the walk.

Next, a kingfisher.  It darted across the path like a bullet, stocky, but pointy, and flew arrow straight along the stream, a flash of electric blue. 

I didn’t think things could get much better really, but they did.  We walked through the woods, robins were ticking away (James thinks they are establishing their territory in advance of the european immigrants that often swell the numbers of song birds in the winter) and along the edge of the water.  There were a few more birds about than last week, and something caught my eye amongst a group of, as usual, slumbering pochard.  There was another bird in there, slightly bigger, with a chestnut head, white sides and a bright red beak.  It was a red crested pochard, something I have never seen before. It is a continental bird, and it is thought that those found in the UK are probably descended from escapees. Still, I was excited by this unexpected find.

Further round the Country Park the birds were having a harder time out on the water. There were flocks of gulls trying to remain still in the wind whilst they looked for food in the water, occasionally giving up the struggle, letting go and being swept off before coming back into position and starting again. Occasionally one would dive and catch something, whilst being watched by grebes for anything that got away.

Hovering Gulls

Still no redwings, and no goosander – Winter has not yet arrived.

Ethical Shopping on the High Street?

An article in the Times last week detailed a survey of the buying habits of ‘the country’s “green” consumers’. In this survey Primark had been voted Britain’s least ethical clothing retailer. This is obviously a backlash against the recent Panorama investigation which exposed the use of child labour. As many of you know this resulted in many people losing their income as Primark took its business elsewhere (although we do not know how ‘ethical’ the new supplier is). Many have argued that a more responsible action would have been to work with the supplier to correct the problem.

At the top of the table is Marks & Spencer who have apparently had lots of good publicity about their ethical policies (publicity and policies which have passed me by). These include a clothes recycling initiative with Oxfam where a £5 M&S voucher is given to those who donate clothing to the charity with at least one M&S garment.

According to the same survey the most important concern of these shoppers with regard to clothing was the fair treatment of workers in developing countries. I was surprised by this as it appears to be several times more important than sourcing products in the UK or investing in the communities in which the store is located. We are apparently ethical, but we also want things to be cheap. Besides, who cares about local jobs and communities these days, or the carbon footprint of the things we buy (maybe it should be printed on the label like nutritional information on food). Maybe, in such difficult times we should champion the Buy British campaign again.

Still, surely all this ethical shopping and concern for the low paid of the developing countries must be good news. Indeed it should be, but the financial results released last week would appear to paint a different picture of Britain’s consumer habits.

In an interesting coincidence the results for M&S and Primark came out on the same day. Sales at M&S in these depressed times are not good, Twiggy may be for the chop! However, business at ‘unethical’ Primark is positively booming. M&S has reported a 34% fall in profits, whereas Primark had a whacking rise in profits of 17%. Where does this leave us? Sadly, with the stark realisation that we ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ consumers are in the minority. Were we ever likely to shop at Primark? I tend to find that those who do are usually more interested in getting as much as they can for as cheap as they can and usually don’t read the label. At a time when it thought that people may be buying less, I am afraid they are buying the same amount, only cheaper.

As I stated earlier, M&S’s ethical stance had passed me by (apart from being able to buy a limited range of fair trade clothing). So, where do you go for ethical clothing, and, just as importantly, who do you avoid. This information is not easy to come by. I have tried searching the internet, but I do not want to buy organic soap and other so-called ethical gifts. The reports that I could find are several years old and things may have changed. Even campaign groups such as Labour Behind the Label do not have easy to find information on their website.

There are companies out there, some of them only small at the moment (e.g. Bamboo Clothing) and usually not with outlets on the high street. You do have to search for them, but surely, it is worth the effort?

The frost and snow may not have been good for the flowers, but the damp and grey is certainly not good for the soul.

The sudden drop in temperature last week which heralded some frost and unusually early snow finally finished off the cosmos and marigolds in the front garden. I could bear it no longer and so finally went out and pulled up the annuals. At the moment there is little to put in their place and I like to let things develop at their own pace. However, I have planted a number of tulips and alliums which I hope will appear in the spring when I have to cut the grasses back, and a set of three evergreen grasses which I accidentally bought at the garden centre yesterday when looking for said tulips and alliums.
A few cloves of garlic have also been planted, partly because I would like to grow some and, partly in the hope that the smell will keep some of the cats away.

Following the hard work I decided to treat myself to a walk in the Country Park. Boy, was it quiet. I have seen flocks of birds overhead which look as though they could have been Redwings, and there have been reports of flocks in the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire area, but I didn’t see any in the usual places in the Country Park. (But that could be because the hawthorn berries that they usually feed on are not there, neither is the rest of the hawthorn which appears to have been cleared away for some reason.)
There were very few small birds about, but then all of the bird tables and feeders were empty, so they are probably in nearby gardens where they are better fed.

The reservoir itself was also distinctly quiet. The calls of the Common Tern are now being heard in Africa, and they have not been replaced in any numbers by the usual Winter visitors. A scan of the water with my ‘scope revealed a few groups Wigeon and Pochard as well as about half dozen Shovellers and Tufted Ducks. Great Crested Grebes have now donned their winter plumage and look incredibly white, almost as if they are a different bird.

As so often it was a flock of birds that caught my eye, Lapwings. At one point standing on the shore, wandering about, then suddenly lifted as one into the air. They wheel about, almost landing, then change their mind, they gain altitude and circle around again, and you think they are leaving you. Then, just as suddenly, they are back again, flirting with the shore, making a few passes, before finally settling, seeminly in the same place as before. I was hoping to spot some other birds in with the Lapwings, and I wasn’t disappointed this time. There were two tiny waders, dwarfed by the Wigeon that they nimbly darted in between. They were typically shaped, dumpy birds with long, thin beaks. Both were grey, one with some black below. I had no idea what they are, now I think I know. I have checked them out, I think they were Dunlin, although these are usually coastal birds. I have never seen Dunlin before, yes, I think they were definitely Dunlin. Maybe there is something to warm the heart on a grey Sunday afternoon after all.